A Hobbled Mulvaney Comes to the White House

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On the surface, Mick Mulvaney isn’t a bad choice for White House chief of staff. He looks better after a week of flailing around, with contenders taking themselves out of the running, that started to make me think President Donald Trump would pick a member of one of his golf clubs for the job. Or even worse, Newt Gingrich.

And Mulvaney has good credentials. Experience as director of the Office of Management and Budget is highly relevant and useful for the job; it’s perhaps the best position for understanding how both the White House and the executive branch work. Add in his direct legislative and executive branch experience as a U.S. representative and as acting director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau while he was OMB director. 

It’s also quite normal and appropriate for presidents to turn to a staff with more political expertise as re-election gets closer, as Matthew Dickinson explains. Trump’s first chief of staff had plenty of political experience. His second chief of staff had governing experience. Mulvaney has both.

Still … there’s also a lot not to like. Although Mulvaney’s experience is in the right places, it’s awfully thin. He served three terms in the House, aligning with the House Freedom Caucus but with a pretty light record in terms of leadership positions or accomplishments. In close to two years at OMB, he was best known for sending up budgets that Republican Congresses ignored. And his time as OMB/CFPB head also is problematic. It’s not his fault that Trump gave him two jobs, both of which are normally full-time (and more), but nevertheless it means that he hasn’t been the kind of hands-on director at OMB who would learn the kinds of things that would make him a first-rate White House chief of staff.

The biggest problem with his new role is that he’s going to be acting chief of staff, retaining his job at OMB.

To begin with, that means Trump still won’t have a hands-on OMB director, since it will leave deputy director Russell Vought in charge. Presidency scholar Andrew Rudalevige isn’t impressed:

He makes an important point: “Actings” don’t have the clout of those with the full authority of any office. And OMB is how presidents can influence what happens in executive branch departments and agencies, both through the process of submitting and approving budgets and through management oversight. That’s how presidents can follow up on their instructions to the executive branch. 

And as acting chief of staff, Mulvaney is going into the job with virtually no clout. Why listen to the chief of staff if he’s not likely to be there for very long? Or if the president has so little confidence in him that he isn’t willing to invest him with the full authority of the job? 

Yes, chief of staff for Trump is an impossible job, even under the best circumstances. But that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, or that it can’t be done better or worse. John Kelly, the outgoing chief, really did improve things in his first few months on the job — ridding the White House of some staffers who had no business being there, and organizing the paper flow and even the president’s schedule to some extent. That he eventually could not control the chaos, and even contributed to it himself in several cases, doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for things to go from worse to not-quite-as-bad. 

After all, the president needs a large White House staff in the first place because even the most prepared and active commander in chief can’t possibly handle everything that’s going on. Without help they can rely on, presidents become weaker and weaker, less and less able to influence anything going on (outside of, I suppose, their own Twitter feeds). We know what a presidency without a chief of staff looks like (see: Jimmy Carter), and we know what a presidency with a deliberately weak chief of staff looks like (see: Bill Clinton’s chaotic first two years). Trump, presumably, doesn’t realize any of that. And installing a Kelly replacement who is already unable to exercise the office is a good formula for even more trouble from the White House. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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